Remember you are water.
Of course you leave salt trails.
Of course you are crying.
–adrienne maree brown
Dance and abolition share in vanishing points. Movement emerges only to disappear, with dancers kept in perpetual motion in order to be witnessed. Prisons sustain themselves to erase social ills, with abolitionist calls demanding the eradication of their violently invisibilizing structures. For both, the body disappears before it is fully seen. Sorry/Please/No—an aerial performance by Jo Kreiter’s Flyaway Productions presented in February 2022—emerges within this juncture. An activist afternoon that grounds conversations of restorative justice within a performance context, this event reimagines representations of carcerality, holding both the trauma of those harmed and the experiences of those who have committed harm in unresolved tension.
In contrast to the large, public installation performances of Kreiter’s career, Sorry/Please/No is an intimate showing of a series in progress. It invites the audience into the process of a larger decarceral trilogy (2017–23), including: The Wait Room (2019), which centers female experiences with incarcerated loved ones; Meet Us Quickly With Your Mercy (2021), a performance of racial justice devised from Black and Jewish solidarity around ending mass incarceration; and Apparatus of Repair (forthcoming 2022) built in affinity with restorative justice circles. This trilogy acknowledges Kreiter’s own proximity to the US carceral system through the experience of loved ones, while actively inviting other perspectives via collaboration. Three performance artists contributed to Sorry/Please/No, each of whom identify as survivors of sexual violence (having previously collaborated on a performance in the wake of People v. Turner ).1 Their expression of vulnerability opens the afternoon, priming the audience for emotionally charged witnessing.
A solo performer, Sonsherée Giles, begins crouched upstage in a corner, her body curved around a tin bucket filled with water while her fingers explore its wet surface. I lean in, wanting to confirm its clear contents. With both assertion and trepidation, she approaches the center of the vacuous room on her hands and knees as though obliged to draw near. The bucket hangs heavy over her neck. Overhead swings an apparatus, an eight-foot rod whose lateral line slopes into the gentle curl of a cane, or a question mark, as if reaching down to draw her in, inviting and foreboding at once. The immensity of the space miniaturizes her slight form. Pulleys, levers, and ladders hang from the rafted ceiling: a space built for reimagining its own structure. A dance made to defy.
Having arrived at center stage, the solo dancer hangs the bucket on one end of the apparatus, tipping the plane into precarious imbalance. Her gaze does not leave the pail; no water spills. Holding onto the bar, Giles allows her toes to trace patterns on the floor, guided by the momentum of the rod and its newly weighted end. At first, her feet remain on the ground, but soon her body is aloft. Breath held, she tightrope walks along the metal shape. Exhaling, she conforms to its shape—her spine matching the thin line of the pole. If a solo, the piece never presents Giles alone on stage: the dance transforms to a duet with the bucket, then a pas de trois with the apparatus. The performance expands again to become a quartet with the past as lyrics suggest a memory of sexual assault, first asking “What’s the use of grief?” and then asserting, “Healing is a practice, a promise you make daily”; Giles’s muscles tense as if to catch the haunting words. Permission, shame, guilt, grief, and frustration swirl in the air—sonic lyrics and choreographic motifs evoke harm done and harm endured. But her precise movements and clear command over the apparatus sets her in a position of control as she manipulates the structure into perfect pirouettes without over-rotation. The apparatus spins and the bucket sways in an aerial performance of revolution, vertigo, and reorientation. I feel my heart pulse with new clarity, unsure if I feel seen or implicated (in my habituated ambivalence).
At first the audience is organized in a distanced semi-circle. Throughout the afternoon, the arc tightens as we reconfigure from a spatiality of strangers to a closed circle with greater intimacy. Prior to the solo, the contributing artists engage in conversation surrounding the process of creation, each identifying as a survivor of sexual harm. After the dance, two speakers, Leverett Grissom and Betty McKay, introduce themselves as individuals who had caused harm and survived a collective six decades in prison. Kevin Martin—a specialist at Community Works, an Oakland-based non-profit committed to transformative justice—facilitates the dialogue.2
“Do you feel this touch,” asks Martin, his hand on the shoulder of a speaker acknowledging a crime he committed in the 1980s whose palpable sense of shame and guilt evaporates all movement from the room. I freeze. Having entered the space anticipating writing this review, I take notes as thoughts flood my writing hand. But when the aerial dance ends and the wisdom circle begins, my pen stops—unable to capture the gravity of the moment in any language available to me. This portion gives audience members access to the experience of restorative justice circles, as those who had survived harm and those who had received harm encounter each other’s pasts. Some view it as a space of redemption; others whisper to me that it feels a bit confessional. The space is not, however, a restorative justice circle itself as it lacks the formalization of equity and consent required. It is also racialized, as questions by the majority-white audience in San Francisco at times conflated darkness and Blackness.
Water trickles throughout the afternoon—first heavy in a bucket, then poured as tea in intermission. Sweat and tears blur as a glossy veneer on the faces of the audience members and performers alike. The solo concludes with the bucket draining onto Giles’s body, saturating the white fabric, making it cling to her frame. Water, as Kreiter acknowledges, can both nourish and drown. In excess, such as the floods of Hurricane Katrina experienced in Giles’s adult years, its force devastates. In absence, such as the droughts of California familiar to the audience, its force devastates still. Water can rupture dams and evacuate tear ducts. Airborne, it might spawn molded corners; collected, it might cleanse in baptism. This abstracted force of twin merit clouds the water between victim and victimizer, challenging the audience to articulate the division without bias or to choose to let it vanish once and for all.
This piece was left open to problematic interpretation; intention and impact remain two separate categories of evaluation. Early in the rehearsal process, Kreiter acknowledged to me that she felt vulnerable to political critique, anticipating that some audience members would view the piece as not survivor-centered enough while others would fault her for not creating space for reconciliation. Some may critique abolitionist art for its lack of material change exemplified by reform and legislation elsewhere. Others might question why restorative justice often occurs in the very carceral spaces it seeks to dissolve. That same week, my students in a collegiate dance history course challenged the efficacy of activist dance, wondering if visual presentation could actually effect justice, or if it was only ever just performance whose reference to violence merely repeated trauma. Created and performed in a nation founded on disappearing histories of violence, however, perhaps it’s enough for this performance to amplify the impact of harm and the experiences of those responsible. In a post-show survey I conducted on behalf of Flyaway Productions, other audience members applauded the event for offering space to process challenging content, attesting that its artistic framing reduced the barrier to entry, emotionally and socially.3
“Who was I before the world defined me?” Camille A. Brown’s question from the dance piece BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play (2015) reverberates for me in the conversation that spilled out that afternoon. “Returning citizens” and current “queens” answer those who had once caused harm. “
Returning Citizen,” Grissom corrects, “I never left.” “Queen,” McKay clarifies, “as in one who serves her people, who seeks to protect, support, and uplift those in her community.” For these survivors, citizens, and queens, the dance demands a right to be believed, a movement toward a reclamation of innocence.
The event concludes by us sharing a gesture together—a fist closed and a palm extended. It prods:
Sorry, it may be difficult
[to acknowledge equally those who have received or committed
[the need for punition and the prison industrial complex];
No, this conversation doesn’t end
Next will come the Apparatus of Repair to complete the trilogy. But in Sorry/ Please/No, Kreiter asks that we gather to first reimagine the justice system, collectively. Not to absolve the damage done, but to safeguard the future.
Drop by drop.
Dance by dance.
Water evaporated at the vanishing point.
Water made to weep.
- Contributing artists include: Jo Kreiter (artistic direction), Sonsherée Giles (performer), and Maddy “MADlines” Clifford (music, arrangement, and lyrics).
- The second performance would include live ASL interpretation.
- I conducted this survey as supported by a Graduate Public Service Fellowship funded by the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford University.